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Published in The Drum 27 February 2012 and the Canberra Times 3 March 2012

ASIO: in a world of its own

The mandate of security organisations such as ASIO are to secretly collect, collate and store information for use in briefing government and other agencies in order to protect citizens, institutions and government from harm by hostile persons and organisations. The requirement for secrecy and the guardianship of secrets confers power, particularly if the gathering of secrets, the interpretation of secret information and the knowledge of what secrets are held, are beyond the scrutiny of the parliament and people.

Those entrusted with these tasks must, perforce, be of the highest character and moral calibre. Well yes, except that we are all human and therefore flawed. Even the best intelligence analysts make value judgements, based on a world view developed as a result of a multitude of experiences, hurts, privileges or lack of them, overlain with personality strengths, weaknesses and disorders.

It might therefore be concluded that to leave secrets and judgements relating to those secrets in the hands of mere mortals, whether a democracy or dictatorship, without review, is at best an act of faith, foolhardy and potentially and probably dangerous to the reputations and lives of those under surveillance and scrutiny.

We need look no further than the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover or the NKVD under Lavrenry Beria and ill conceived transgressions of the sovereignty of nations by the CIA, MI5/6, Mossad and Pakistan’s ISI, in fact the list is as long as there are intelligence gathering organisations. Many, if not most, also gather intelligence about their own citizens; the Gestapo was adept at that.

Where possible intelligence agencies like to gather their own information, but it is not always possible. In that event they must accept information from ‘friendly’ sources and then decide how reliable it is and/or how much weight to give it.

Australia accepts a range of information from other sources, particularly the United States, much of it electronic, it also accepts information from its neighbours with various caveats and degrees of reliability, which depending on likely outcomes, it must test, cross reference and try to verify.

Australia must do this because it cannot have people on the ground in every area of the world that is of interest to it. ASIO has a limited remit to operate offshore. By and large it must rely on Australia’s offshore intelligence gathering organisation ASIS and the AFP, but limited resources means that they cannot be represented in all the places they would like to be.

Often agencies must rely on local informants, who may pass on information for money, from opposition a government, or hatred and fear of certain individuals and organisations. They may do this for revenge or safe passage or both.

Governments decide who their enemies are, they may be justified in their assessment or they may be wrong. In opposing the entry into mainstream society of blacks the South African apartheid government declared as terror organisations the ANC, the PAC and the Black Consciousness Movement. Charges were brought against prominent activists under the Terrorism Act and they were incarcerated for long periods of time for doing nothing more than seeking equitable change, included amongst these was Nelson Mandela, later a recipient of the award of the Order of Australia.

Through the years of apartheid ASIO maintained a close liaison with the South African Bureau of State Security, BOSS. They kept files on ANC, PAC and BCM activists and refugees living in Australia, as well as members of anti-apartheid groups. BOSS drove an agenda which ASIO was happy to comply with.

ASIO kept extensive dossiers on anti-Vietnam activists and demonstrators. These were used to prevent hard core activists getting employment with the Federal Government.

At the present time ASIO keeps a close watch on the Islamic community as a precaution against acts of terror by Muslim fundamentalists. ASIO’s activities are clumsy, judgemental and said to be offensive to the Australian Islamic community, so much so, that worshipers at the Preston Mosque in Melbourne felt constrained to protest in mid February at alleged ASIO harassment of members of the congregation including attempts at ASIO recruitment.

However ASIO and the AFP are caught up in the hysteria of the war on terror; their budgets and staffing levels have grown in relation to the political millage to be gained from government maintaining the fear – we are easier to control if we are in the corral.

One might speculate or argue that there is a construct between the security services and government to keep a constant level of threat before the public in order to advantage government. More likely the security services are reading the government and providing them with what they need, with the trade off that they have been able expand and continue to expand thereby increasing their influence and power within and over government.

ASIO continues to refuse to grant security clearances to over 50 men who have been granted refugee status. They continue to be held in detention and will remain there because ASIO does not wish to lose face or admit to flawed practice.

Let me speak on behalf of the Sri Lankan Tamils found to be refugees but still detained as a threat to security. These men were on the losing side in a civil war. They are soldiers of a military force which resorted to acts of terror in order to try and maximise their advantage. Nothing unusual in that, Australians would have done the same thing if the Japanese had gained a foothold in 1942 and as the emerging state of Israel did in 1946/7.

As mentioned the Australian security services have finite resources. It is unlikely that they have an in country capacity to independently assess who are LTTE terrorists. For this they must rely on the agencies of the Sri Lankan government, the victors in the civil war. Even during the time of my diplomatic posting to Sri Lanka, it struck me as nonsense, to the point that I felt requests seeking security clearances from the Sri Lankan Police for Tamils in Australia seeking asylum would compromise the security of their families in Sri Lanka.

The only source of information available to ASIO to maintain its intransigence with respect to these poor benighted Tamils is the Sri Lankan government. It is unconscionable that the Australian Government allows one of its agencies to be beholden to the Sri Lankan government in this way, a government, which in its embrace of corruption has shown its infinite capacity for cruelty toward the Tamil minority.
As eventually, with the South African Embassy, the Sri Lankan High Commission must be cut adrift. They are not assisting in the war on terror, they are merely fingering political opponents and ASIO is complying. In the mistaken belief that it was engaged on another front in the so called war on terror, the Australian Government, through its agencies, has allowed itself to be sucked into the slime of a corrupt regimes civil war, all because of its inability to share power.

The Australian government must over-ride its agencies and release these victims of a malevolent regime before such harm is done that by the time they are eventually released, for surely they will be, the government will be forced to pay millions in compensation on the basis of the stupidity and wilfulness of ASIO.

The head of ASIO, David Irvine, has unfettered authority in this matter. He has made a poor call, courage and compassion are lacking. The dictates of a cruel and vindictive regime, which continues to persecute and murder Tamils, appear to have held sway. Others in his position might well act differently. He should resign or be stood down.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator.